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Metal Detractor

St. Anger (Elektra)

One of the few memories I have of 1986 was racing to Worlds Record on Central Avenue to buy Metallica’s Master of Puppets LP the day it was released. It had been almost two years since the Bay Area bashers had given their fans anything new to sink their rotting teeth into, and by God I will never forget the cutting, galloping, bowel-emptying first riff of “Battery,” how relentless it sounded, how unwavering and refreshing and hungry, which is why St. Anger, an alleged back-to-basics volley of musketry and malaise, piqued my curiosity.

By their own admission, the band created their new offering simply by running tape during jam sessions, and assembling favorable riffs into songs using ProTools editing software. Unfortunately, it sounds like exactly thus. Metallica appear to have struck a Burroughsian cut-up compromise between their ’80s thrash catalogue and the ’90s AOR drop-tuned swagger, while sailing into some iffy emotional waters that just barely seem sincere (it’s hard to feel bad for a multimillionaire with a drinking problem). And here’s the heartbreaker: There are a buttload of doughty, relationship-ending riffs on this 80-minute epic, but most either dump abruptly into attention-deficit Durst-while refrains or become lost in hastily prepared reticulation, “Purify” being the one interesting exception.

There are some other glorious moments, of course, but the momentary majesty of “Dirty Window,” “My World” and “Sweet Amber” is unfortunately compromised by an absolutely atrocious snare drum, a deliberately industrial, piccolo-style drone that ruins every song for me. They’re also back to hazing the new guy by squelching Robert Trujillo’s bass anchor during the most important breakdowns, only now guitarist Kirk Hammett joins the MIA list: not a single lead to be found. This is certainly not the same rage that created “Damage, Inc.,” which is perhaps how it should be, but the DNA that bred this beast experiences some very pronounced pitfalls in the process of this natural selection. It may grow on me, and it may find its experimental niche in the metal history books, but for now I’m calling this one St. Elsewhere.

Bill Ketzer

Daniel Johnston
The Early Recordings, Volume 1 (Dualtone)

This two-CD release of Daniel Johnston’s early, primitive home recordings is—at the very least—good for illustrating the disturbing trend of mental-illness chic that has dogged music culture for decades. Musical obscurantists and critics alike are drawn to tales of mental anguish, from the worship of Brian Wilson’s nonalbum Smile to the apotheosis of the acid-cracked (Syd Barrett, Roky Erickson, Skip Spence) to Johnston, whose battle with chronic mental illness has made good copy for years. But will champions of this collection actually sit down and consistently listen to it for pleasure as the years go by? That’s obviously a rhetorical question.

Johnston has written some enjoyable, slightly skewed pop songs, and his major-label album and best work, 1994’s Fun (produced by Butthole Surfer Paul Leary), showed that his music could be strong outside the context of its “oddness.” And there’s the rub: This collection can really only survive in the context of Daniel’s mental illness; without that backstory/mythology, the music is hardly remarkable. And it’s a peculiar irony that Johnston—whose muse is drawn from such mainstream fodder as unrequited love (OK, unhealthy obsession), Captain America (the superhero) and the Beatles—is championed primarily by the ultrahip cognoscenti. (And then there was that Daniel Johnston T-Shirt that Kurt Cobain semi-famously sported.)

This collection, comprising his first two albums and roughly rendered on cheapo equipment, is a curiosity for collectors only; for actual listening, attention would be better paid to Johnston’s more recent work, and not this basement-recorded curiosity. But then again, it’s an old-fashioned notion that tunes should be judged primarily on musical merit, and not on compelling biography or cultural context.

—Erik Hage

Thee Midniters
Greatest (Thump/Universal)

From mid-’60s East Los Angeles, Thee Midniters have long been championed as the best Latino rock band of their era. However, their artistic triumphs are broader than that: They’re one of the best rock bands of the era, period. Modifying the accolade with their familial and cultural origins is simply a way of explaining away the limited reach of their commercial success at the time.

The 20 songs on the aptly titled collection, Greatest, step easily between garage rock, doo-wop, soul, balladry, and even psychedelia. The band had keen instincts for powerful radio fare as well, though few outside of Southern California ever knew it back then. They recorded “Land of a Thousand Dances,” but lost out in the hit parade to Cannibal & the Headhunters, who had the benefit of being on a label with more powerful national distribution. A similarly broad and honestly resonant East L.A. band, Los Lobos, grew up listening to Thee Midniters. From soulful numbers like “Dreaming Casually” and “I Need Someone” to proto-Nuggets like “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” and “Never Knew I Had It So Bad,” these are gems that young music fans would be well-served to have on their turntables. Greatest is the first legitimate CD collection of Thee Midniters, and it’s an essential portrait of a great band from a period of time in America when embracing numerous genres was rightly considered healthy.

—David Greenberger

Various Artists
It’ll Come to You: The Songs of John Hiatt (Vanguard)

Lyrically, John Hiatt is the master of the unadorned yet utterly striking sentiment, making him something of a songwriting equivalent to Hemingway (To wit: “Could have been the kiss of my life/Could have been the death of me” or “She came on to him like a slow-moving cold-front/His beer was warmer than the look in her eye”). More than 50 artists have recorded his songs over the years, and this collection culls 13 of those takes.

The songs that work best here are the ballad-driven heart-wreckers, such as Linda Rondstadt’s breathtaking run through (the perfect Hiatt song) “When We Ran” or Patty Griffin’s stirring, earthy “Take It Down,” which was recorded specifically for this collection. Another new recording, Buddy & Julie Miller’s searing, sleazed-out barroom romp “Paper Thin,” also is a sterling track (“I was gonna get up off of that bar stool/Just as soon as I could figure it out”). And Rodney Crowell’s “She Loves the Jerk” stands as one of the best tracks despite the dated (’80s) guitar sound and production. Nick Lowe, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Freddy Fender and Roseanne Cash provide other strong takes.

This otherwise great collection sags slightly under the weight of a clutch of House of Blooze-style numbers (pitched in the VH1-watchin’, SUV-drivin’, AOR-listenin’ direction). It’s an unfortunate choice to exhume B.B. King’s and Eric Clapton’s pallid “Riding With the King” (2000). And does Bonnie Raitt’s long-overexposed “Thing Called Love” (1989) really need any more promotion? By contrast, Buddy Guy will give the listener chicken skin with his heartfelt, slow-grooving blues on “Feels Like Rain.” Overall, this is a solid tribute to 30 years of top-notch songwriting.

—Erik Hage

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